He tore his girlfriend’s clothes. That’s the detail that struck Jim Ptacek, a sociology professor at Suffolk University, when he read about Jared Remy’s history of domestic violence — a history that extended long before the alleged stabbing of Jennifer Martel this month.
A decade ago, in a different relationship, Remy was accused of kicking a woman, punching her, dragging her, and cutting her clothes. That last act, odd and intimate, turns out to be a common thread among abusers, a tactic many use to send a chilling message that escape is impossible.
“It’s so symbolic: I will not allow you independence,” said Ptacek, who has written several books about domestic violence. In others cases, he said, abusers have prevented escape more directly, by disabling their wives’ cars, ripping telephones out of walls, and — in the pre-industrial era — cutting up their saddles.
One sad side effect of Martel’s tragic death is the fear that it will send a similar message to victims: that escape is out of reach, in the face of a system that isn’t set up to protect them.
That’s a shame, because it could cost lives — and because it obscures some important reforms that have reshaped the process for victims. Stories used to abound, Ptacek said, of abuse claims belittled in courtrooms: a judge chiding a woman for taking out a restraining order on Valentine’s Day, or criticizing the way she dressed in court.
Perhaps this still happens, sometimes. But many courts now try to treat domestic abuse victims — usually women, sometimes men — with dignity. Some of the changes they’ve made are small, but meaningful: When Dorchester District Court was redesigned, Ptacek said, officials set aside a room where victims could wait for their cases to be called, so they wouldn’t have to spend hours in the same courtroom with their attackers.
Some reforms are designed to help victims navigate the process. In Quincy District Court, Ptacek said, officials keep track of their domestic violence records. When a restraining order is about to expire, they send a letter to the victim, asking if she’d like to renew — and letting her know that they’ve already reserved a hearing date.
More broadly, advocates have learned to treat domestic violence as a community problem, to assemble group interventions involving social service agencies, health care workers, and networks of victims’ family and friends.
And when a victim leaves her abuser, advocates are better able to press for her safety, using practices like the one pioneered at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport: a team approach, coordinated with police and the courts, aimed at identifying victims who face an imminent threat of death.
In Massachusetts, a dangerousness hearing — which, we all now know, wasn’t held in Remy’s case — can help keep a victim safe, said Suzanne Dubus, the center’s chief executive officer. Technology can help, too: In some cases, GPS bracelets have been used to track offenders after their arraignments, a time when their victims are most vulnerable.
You can measure the success of this new approach when it leads to a decrease in deaths. That was the focus of a New Yorker story about the Geiger Crisis Center this summer.
But you can also measure success by the number of victims who are willing to seek help. When Dubus started her work 20 years ago, she told me, the center saw about 1,000 victims each year.
“I thought, ‘Wow we’re going to provide more services and do more outreach and we’re gonna bring that sucker way down,’ ” Dubus told me. “The truth is, the more work that we do in the community, the higher our numbers go.”
That’s a sign that domestic abuse remains a pervasive, vexing problem. It’s also a sign that Dubus’ outreach is working: More women are willing to work with the system, believing they’ll be able to break free.
Now, Dubus worries that Martel’s death will send some of them back underground. Victims “hear us talking about our work and how things have changed and how it’s so much better. And I do know that it is,” she said. But every high-profile murder is “a message to victims that it isn’t. That nothing has changed. That no one can help.”
Is that what Jennifer Martel was thinking, before she died?Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.